It seems April is upon us. Boston has been enjoying some delightful rainstorms as of late – we’ve had a few gentle minuets of small watery droplets, some playful showers that seem to pit-pat the pavement with a rhythmic, do-wop beat, and some full-on orchestral thunderstorms. As for me, I’ve taken to curling up with a book by the window to listen to the watery symphony, or else I stomp around in my green rainboots and black umbrella with the duck handle when I’m forced to go outside for some silly reason or another, like to buy milk or pick up drycleaning or, you know, go to work.
The rain has brought with it not just the opportunity for tall rubber boots, but also the delicious smell of spring, of thawed fingers and sweet grass and rich, wet earth. I even saw pair of red breasted Robins and a bunch of pretty purple blossoms pushing through the stubborn ground on my way home today, so I’m declaring Spring officially here. (I know it’s technically been here for a few weeks now – at least, the calendar says it has been – but to me it’s not officially Spring until it smells like Spring. Which it now does. Happy Spring.)
All that splashing and puddle jumping can make a girl hungry, so I invited Megan and Maral over for dinner on Tuesday. I made Ina Garten’s Spring Green Risotto – a fresh, fragrant jumble of chewy rice, crispy asparagus, tangy spring onions, smooth mascarpone cheese and zesty lemon. We ate it sprinkled with chives and a touch of nutty parmesan and, paired with a crisp glass (or two) of Chardonnay and the best vanilla cupcakes in Boston (thanks, Maral), it made for the most wonderful dinner. It was warm and comforting (we ate it while watching Jeopardy and watching the rain bounce off the window sills), yet it tasted light and fresh, flecked beautifully with the green bounties of Spring. And the best part is you don’t even have to wait for a rainstorm to make it. Just make sure it smells like Spring.
I know some people get nervous about risotto because they think they’ll have to spend a lot of time standing over the stove, stirring away lest the rice burn, but fear not: this recipe is pretty much foolproof. You won’t burn the rice. There’s a bit of stirring involved, yes, but a little stirring never hurt anybody. Have a glass of wine handy and some good music playing. I prefer Nanci Griffith for this particular risotto (I think she goes nicely with rainy days), but you can choose whomever you like. In fact, you don’t even have to use spring onions and asparagus in your risotto – use whatever springy jewels catch your fancy. Try artichokes, or yellow beets, or sweet green peas, or all of them at once! It’s Spring, people! Catch the fever! And wear your rainboots.
1. When I say I used spring onions for this dish, I don’t mean scallions. I mean super-scallions. You can find big spring onions in the produce section at most supermarkets and farmer’s markets once the winter weather starts to thaw. They look like scallions on steroids, with large, plump white bulbs and long green stalks. Choose onions that have stiff, vibrant green stems and are free of blemishes.
2. Arborio rice is a short-grained, Italian rice. They look like little rice nuggets, and give off the perfect amount of starch for the risotto. Look for it in the rice aisle at the supermarket.
3. Mascarpone cheese is basically the Italian version of cream cheese. Look for it in any market with a sizeable cheese section. I got mine at Whole Foods.
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- 3 cups (about 3 large) spring onions, chopped (white and light green parts)
- 1 cup chopped fennel (about half a large bulb)
- 1.5 cups Arborio rice
- 2/3 cup dry white wine
- 4 to 6 cups chicken stock
- 1 pound thin asparagus
- 1/2 Tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1.5 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus extra for serving)
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (plus extra for serving)
Heat chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. In another medium pot, bring some water to boil (for blanching the asparagus).
Heat the olive oil and butter in a deep pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the spring onions and fennel and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until soft and tender. Add the rice and stir for a minute or two to coat the grains with veggies, oil and butter. Add the white wine and simmer over low heat, stirring until most of the wine has been absorbed. Add the chicken stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring intermittently and waiting for the stock to be absorbed before adding more. It will probably take about 25 to 30 minutes to add the chicken stock. Don’t feel obligated to add all of the stock – if the rice doesn’t seem to want to absorb any more liquid, stop adding stock.
Meanwhile, cut the asparagus in roughly 1.5 inch pieces (discarding the tough ends). Throw some salt into the pot of boiling water and drop in the asparagus, blanching them for about 4 to 5 minutes, until al dente. Drain the asparagus and cool immediately in ice water or under a cold running faucet.
When the risotto has been cooking for about 15 minutes, drain the asparagus and add it to the risotto with the lemon zest, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring until the rice is tender but still firm.
Whisk the lemon juice and mascarpone together in a small bowl. When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and stir in the mascarpone mixture plus the Parmesan cheese and chives. Add more salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot with a sprinkle of chives and extra Parmesan cheese.
Serves about 4.
PS: Don’t forget dessert.